Not all the prospectors lured to the hills and hollows around John Sutter’s sawmill at Coloma in El Dorado County had as much luck finding gold as James W. Marshall.
For that matter, not even Marshall made much of a fortune in digging for color. His celebrity rests largely on his happenstance discovery of small flakes of gold in the tailrace of Sutter’s mill, which he was helping build in 1848, touching off the Gold Rush.
With only sporadic success beyond that, Marshall and many other argonauts began to exploit Coloma’s rich soils, agreeable climate and abundant water to cultivate other sources of revenue, namely flowers, vegetables, fruit and wine. They were so successful that Coloma Valley, aka Coloma Basin, came to be recognized more for its agricultural bounty than its gold. “Coloma is literally a pomological garden,” waxed Placerville’s Mountain Democrat in 1858, according to Eric Costa’s 2010 history of winemaking in El Dorado County, “Gold and Wine.”
At Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, however, not much of that story is told. Visitors to the park’s museum can see James Marshall’s cribbage board, pocket watch, walking cane, milk pail and rifle, but nothing to show that he grew 120 varieties of grapes, coopered barrels and made wine. Behind his cabin high on a slope overlooking the park, just a faint outline of the terraces that held his vineyard can be sensed.
Nevertheless, a correction is under way. The park superintendent, Barry Smith, is keen to expand and diversify the park’s interpretation of Coloma’s history. He talks of converting one of the site’s vacant structures into an information center to showcase the area’s past and present grape growing and winemaking, which early on rivaled in prosperity and stature the vineyards and wines of Los Angeles, Sonoma and Napa.
He escorts a visitor to a remote corner of the park, accessible by a little-used trail up a narrow ravine. Here stands and sprawls the stone ruins of a winery built in three phases over 15 years starting in 1860. Today, all that remains to suggest that wine was made here is a heap of rusting metal hoops that bound big oak casks; no staves endure. Smith notes that some of the stone used to build the winery came from Coloma’s old jail, and that the winery was big enough to house 16 casks, each capable of holding 500 gallons of wine.
As he strolls about the brushy site, where the only grapes are a wild variety dangling from trees, Smith pauses to muse about the structure’s potential as an event center, though he acknowledges that such a vision will take years to realize. “It’s just an idea right now,” he says of his hopes to broaden the park’s perspective and resources. “It would take a lot of money to get it up and going.”
In the meantime, he’s overseeing a restyling of the park museum to widen its embrace of Coloma’s richly textured history, including its wine heritage. That project is expected to be finished late this year or early next.
He’s also connected to a newly formed group of farmers and vintners bent on spreading word about the agricultural history of northwest El Dorado County and its current revival. They are doing this through the nascent American River Wine & Ag Trail, which counts among its members in the Coloma area Gold Hill Vineyard & Brewery, David Girard Vineyards and Mad Dog Mesa. The latter produces olive oils on a plateau in the western reaches of Georgetown Divide, high above the south fork of the American River. (David Girard and Mad Dog Mesa are open by appointment only, though Mad Dog’s three types of extra-virgin olive oil are sold at Sunday’s farmers markets in Sacramento.)
While the Coloma area doesn’t have as high a profile as El Dorado County’s other wine enclaves – Apple Hill, Fair Play and Pleasant Valley – it is growing in vineyards and wineries.
One founder of the American River Wine & Ag Trail is Dominic Mantei, a consulting winemaker in the area as well as resident winemaker for the past three years at Hart 2 Hart Vineyards, which also includes the brand Everhart Cellars.
Mantei estimates that the area served by the developing trail, which also includes Georgetown, Lotus and Cool, now plays host to between 30 and 40 vineyards, most of them small, many remote. A half-dozen wineries also are scattered about the area.
The region’s grape growers, he notes, are largely in an experimental phase, tending a wide spectrum of grape varieties to see which will flourish. Italian varieties such as sangiovese and barbera are popular in the area, along with such French grapes as petit verdot, mourvedre and syrah, says Mantei. So far, no one looks to be cultivating isabella and catawba, American varieties that early pioneers brought with them from the East and which largely accounted for Coloma’s early vineyards.
Among the area’s viticultural strengths is its cragginess, offering a range of elevations and exposures. Another is its soils. Sid Davis, assistant state soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service in Davis, says they are largely granitic, “with sandy loam top soils and clay-rich sub soils with relatively high water holding capacity to support good plant growth.” To the west and east of Coloma Valley the soils are more metamorphic sedimentary. The “sweet spot” for growing premium grapes in the area, he notes, is roughly between 1,500 feet and 2,500 feet. He should know. He’s been farming cabernet sauvignon there for 35 years.
Davis also notes that the Coloma region’s early orchard and vineyard stewards benefited from the extensive network of ditches dug originally to bring water to the gold diggings. “As mines played out, the ditches very rapidly were converted to agricultural uses,” Davis says. In the mid-1870s, notes historian Eric Costa, 666 acres at Coloma were planted to grapes.
In 1965, reported the trade magazine Wines & Vines at the time, a hybrid grape aptly named “Gold” was planted in the Coloma area. Smith hadn’t heard of the planting, and I’ve not been able to pin down what became of that vine or vines, though other cuttings of “Gold” remain at UC Davis. The variety was developed in the 1950s by UC Davis plant geneticist Dr. Harold Olmo by crossing strains of muscat grapes. Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti says that as near as he can recall only Lodi’s East Side Winery ever used “Gold” to make a wine, and that it wasn’t so successful that it encouraged others to take advantage of the grape.
One of the Coloma area’s more historic sites is the setting of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Colony Farm, the first Japanese colony in the United States, founded in 1869. The property, along Cold Springs Road just south of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, includes a restored 1850s farmhouse whose rock-walled basement housed the winemaking cellar of Charles Graner.
Today, the property, now called Wakamatsu Community Farm, is owned by the American River Conservancy, which is capitalizing on the 272 acres by encouraging a variety of sustainable agricultural ventures.
One is Free Hand Farm, which produces lamb, milk and eggs.
While Coloma Valley is compact and easily accessible – it’s only about 6 miles long and a mile wide – some wineries and other farm businesses in the region are isolated along narrow, remote and twisting roads. What’s more, several are open only by appointment or by season. Thus, before launching an exploration of the Coloma area, check the websites of potential destinations, starting with the American River Wine & Ag Trail (americanriverwineandagtrail.com), Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484) and American River Conservancy (www.arconservancy.org).
Wine critic and competition judge Mike Dunne’s selections are based solely on open and blind tastings, judging at competitions, and visits to wine regions. He can be reached at email@example.com.